Welcome to the very first column in my new series, YES Relived, where I will be watching, reviewing and analysing one of modern pro wrestling’s greatest stories, the rise of Daniel Bryan and the Yes Movement. Starting at Summer Slam 2013 and running through to through to that fateful Wrestlemania 30 main event, we’ll be charting Daniel Bryan’s progress on a week by week basis.
Before we get started I must admit that my anticipation for this series is very high. I quite literally would not be here today if it wasn’t for this storyline, as it was this story that brought me back to wrestling in 2014. For various reasons I have never been a regular weekly viewer of WWE’s programs and am interested to see how a week by week experience of this angle affects my memories of it. It is a journey I am very excited to start and it is something I want to share with you guys too so I’d love it if you watched along with me and let me know your memories of the story in the comments below.
So how is this going to work? I plan on watching and reviewing every Daniel Bryan segment on both Raw & Smackdown in a column each week and PPV’s will get a dedicated piece to themselves as well. We’ll be looking at what happens each week but also talk about it in terms of a broader picture in the story.
But enough of the preamble, let’s get stuck in and set the scene!
The Life of Bryan
While we will start this series properly next week at Summer Slam 2013, the tale of the Yes Movement goes back before that event itself and expands well beyond the two men that entered the ring that night, extending to the state of the WWE itself. One of the things that made the the build of Daniel Bryan from indy darling to unlikely WWE Superstar so exciting was how it became a flash point for a number of issues that had been building up to a boiling point in the WWE for over ten years. It is a story that shined a spotlight on so much of the creative tension between the WWE and its fan base at that time and also acts as a landmark in the change of the company from its internally developed talent systems of the 2000s to the more broad, indy friendly approach that we have seen employed in the most recent decade.
Of course the wrestlers that stepped into the ring for the main event of Summer Slam 2013 could not have been more perfectly selected to kick off a story that would bring these issues to light so clearly and would would pit the on screen representation of the WWE so completely against its audience.
First up, it is not hyperbole to say that in 2013 John Cena was the WWE and the WWE was John Cena. He came up directly through their internal system in the early 00s, having only wrestled a handful of matches outside the WWE’s direct feeder territories. He debuted on the main roster as a nobody in 2002 and was built up by the company to become one of the most dominant WWE Champions ever. This reign at the top of the WWE also coincided with an all around creative stagnation for the product in the later half of the decade and to many Cena epitomised this problem in the way he looked, the way he wrestled and most of all, the way he was booked.
From 2006 onwards Cena began to be met with the mounting wrath of many of the WWE’s most die hard fans, who derided his matches as boring and bland, complained about his lack of interesting character development and hated the preferential treatment that saw him reign over many of the men the fans thought would be better champions. By 2013 the crowd welcoming John Cena to the ring with a chorus of boos and the duelling “Let’s go Cena”, “Cena sucks” chants were a fixture in the WWE. Just as the fans were tired of the WWE, they were tired of John Cena.
Enter Daniel Bryan a guy who actually began wrestling only a year after John Cena started but would not appear in the WWE until 2010, well into Cena’s entrenchment at the pinnacle of the company. In that ten year period before entering the company, Bryan built his name as the premier independent wrestler in the world. Among his many title reigns and accolades in the period, Bryan took out the vaunted Wrestling Observer annual Most Outstanding Wrestler award four years in a row from 2006-2010, won the best technical wrestler award so many times it has now been named after him and even took out the fan voted Wrestler of the Decade award for 2000-2009. However despite the fan excitement around his potential and the reputation he hand built as an electric performer, at only 5’10 and with a functional rather than flattering look, Bryan stood as the absolute opposite of what the WWE has always looked for in a ‘top guy’.
When he debuted on the main roster, he did receive a fairly strong build, quickly picking up the US Title and then the World Heavyweight Title. However after ending on the wrong side of an 18 second squash at Wrestlemania 28, it appeared to many that the glass ceiling that had held down so many since John Cena’s ascension to the top of the card was well and truly getting placed over someone they wanted to see in the main event. As Daniel Bryan said in the lead up to Summer Slam, the WWE wants someone who is more style than substance, but he was in it for the wrestling and was someone the fans truly wanted to see at the top of the card.
The popularity of Bryan’s YES! chant itself goes back to the fateful night after the Wrestlemania 28 match where fans used to voice their displeasure at the result of Bryan’s match against Sheamus, hijacking the show with the rebellious display. The chant would be played off by Bryan in his tag team with Kane and he would begin chanting “NO” at the crowd trying to support him. By the time Summer Slam 2013 came around the YES chant was firmly embedded in the fans repertoire, well on the way to join the likes of ‘What?’ and ‘Wooo’. However with Bryan embracing the audience and the crowd embracing Bryan as their champion who would take down the WWE, the chant would come to be a symbol of defiance from the crowd and Bryan himself, a chant flaunting his near universal popularity in comparison to the divided reaction John Cena received.
Of course Daniel Bryan was not the first indy darling to go through this kind of fan generated wave of excitement and rage. CM Punk’s earth shattering Pipebomb promo in 2011 that kicked off The Reality Era created a similar groundswell of fan sentiment behind the outsider Punk. However the WWE’s seemingly halfhearted embrace of the fan’s excitement and eventual lack of commitment to Punk as their true top guy only created an even more combustible environment for Bryan to step into two years later.
The short of all this of course is that the WWE audience that Daniel Bryan and John Cena would enter into at Summer Slam in 2013 was one not just craving change but actively fighting for it. An audience sick of John Cena as Champion and ready to go all in with Daniel Bryan.
It is hard to decide whether it was good management or pure luck that led the WWE to the point where Daniel Bryan was just so smoking hot. When they unceremoniously had Bryan lose to Sheamus in just 18 seconds at Wrestlemania 28 did they understand the backlash it would generate or did they actually hope to cool Bryan’s popularity off with such a poor showing? Was Team Hell No created as a vehicle that would give Bryan a chance to refine his character chops or as a way to force him away from the singles position the audience wanted him to be in?
Of course this being The Reality Era every single move by the company has to be taken with a grain of salt, as the line between the real backstage decision making and the on screen presentation was more murky than it had ever have been before. When Bryan was labelled a ‘B+ player’ you can never tell if it is the genuine backstage sentiment coming through or if the creative forces behind the product simply wanted us to think that is what they thought. That kind of doublethink can drive a wrestling fan crazy but one thing I would like to analyse over this series is just how organic the Yes Movement truly was. There are some who claim that the whole angle rom Summer Slam to Wrestlemania was pre-planned, others maintain that the original ideas for all the players were very different. I will not answer that question just yet but hopefully we will be able to get an idea as the series goes on.
That’s all for today though, make sure you come back this time next week where we will kick this series off for good at Summer Slam 2013. In the meantime you can check out John Cena and Daniel Bryan’s first ever match together on WWE Velocity in February 2003, a weird quirk in the history of pro wrestling but a fun one none the less.